DASSEL, MN Dassel Navy veteran Dave Huikko says he’s not a lucky man, but he feels he’s tremendously blessed.
The sentiment comes from Huikko’s close call back in January 1969.
At that time, Huikko was working below decks in the power plant of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).
That morning, at about 8:18 a.m., Huikko and his fellow crew members felt the ship shake, and saw items fall from their places.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled.
A big bang had happened on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, when an MK-32 Zuni rocket, loaded on a parked F-4 Phantom, exploded.
The first explosion led to others, which resulted in massive fires on the flight deck.
Per regulations, all doors on the ship were shut, and crew had to ask permission to go from place to place.
Shortly after the power plant crew felt the ship shake, the call came down for the trainees in the department to help haul fire-fighting foam containers and supplies up to the flight deck.
“When they came back,” Huikko said, “their demeanor had changed. They were sober.”
The power plant crew soon learned that the worst of the fire was burning on the back end of the ship, very close to their crew quarters.
There was little they could do except wait for orders, and wonder about what was happening to their colleagues, and what might be happening to their belongings.
During the blaze, the destroyers Rogers, and Benjamin Stoddert, which had been accompanying the Enterprise, attempted to help quench the raging fire.
Huikko reported that one of the ships came directly alongside the Enterprise, pointing fire hoses mounted on the end of the gun barrels at the blaze.
The fire was finally contained at approximately 10:45 a.m.
Huikko said the ship’s crew was put through “multiple musters” as leaders attempted to account for all the ship’s personnel. “Everybody had to be seen,” Huikko said. “They were trying to find out who was missing.”
No one was allowed off the ship until all personnel were accounted for. Results of the multiple counts were devastating.
During the fire, 27 sailors were killed, and 314 others suffered injuries. The vast majority of those killed or wounded were young men, barely into their 20s.
Huikko discovered that one of the ship’s weapons had shredded down within a few feet of his crew quarters, and then ripped out the back of the ship.
Almost immediately, the clean-up process began. For awhile, the crew was in favor of pushing the planes off of the flight deck of the ship. Command from higher in the ranks stopped that action, and had the crew save the remaining debris for forensic purposes.
“There was debris from the planes embedded in the island of the ship,” Huikko recalled. The flight deck’s 2.5-inch-thick armored plating was riddled with 10-to-12 foot holes from explosions.
The Enterprise accident occurred when the ship was 70 miles from the closest port: the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii.
Huikko remembers waiting on the hangar bay for a bank of pay phones to be brought aboard. “We had no cell phones,” he said. “no Facebook.”
Finally, Huikko got a chance to call his wife, Sandy, and assure her he was safe.
Sandy, herself a Navy kid, first heard about the fire from her pastor. The newlywed kept the radio on all day, listening for updates.
“Hearing his voice when he called was calming,” Sandy said. “We were kind of uptight.”
Huikko eventually had a chance to shoot some photos of the aftermath of the fire. He recalls sending the film to Chicago to be developed into slides, and sent home to Minnesota.
The Enterprise stayed in port until March 1 for repairs, at which time, it was placed back into service.
“We went to work, just like normal,” Huikko said. While docked in Hawaii, Huikko only got to go ashore four times.
Huikko remained in the Navy until October 1970. He served for six years.
The Enterprise, however, kept on sailing. The carrier had first launched in September 1960, and was the first ship to be nuclear-powered, and the eighth to wear the Enterprise name.
In its infancy in 1962, the Enterprise served as the tracking and measuring station for Friendship 7, Lt. Colonel John Glenn’s Project Mercury space capsule.
As a part of Task Force 135 in October 1962, Enterprise served as part of a blockade of offensive military equipment during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Enterprise has the distinction of being the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in combat. In 1965, aircraft launched from her decks fought the Viet Cong.
The Enterprise suffered the fire in early 1969, but was repaired and eventually served in six combat deployments to Southeast Asia through 1975. She also was positioned to help with potential evacuations from North Vietnam.
The Enterprise was sent to bring personnel to Uganda in 1977, to potentially rescue and evacuate American hostages taken by President Idi Amin.
In 1986, the Enterprise earned the distinction of being the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to navigate the Suez Canal.
In 1988, she assisted in escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
The Enterprise suffered another deck fire in 1998, when a Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler hit a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the flight deck. The four crew members of the Grumman died.
Enterprise personnel served as the big guns behind Operation Desert Fox, responsible for elimination of Iraqi military targets.
Following 9/11, the Enterprise crew flew approximately 700 missions, dropping 800,000 pounds of ordnance over Afghanistan.
The ship provided constant air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-2004.
The Enterprise’s last foreign call was the same as its first: Naples, Italy, in 2012.
Huikko explained that the inactivation of the Enterprise was a much different process than simply removing the ship’s fuel.
The “Big E’s” eight nuclear reactors had to be removed, which required gutting five or six decks to get to the uranium cores.
The long-serving Enterprise was officially inactivated in December 2012. Among those aboard for the occasion were Dave and Sandy Huikko.
Dave recalled a large audience gathering on the flight deck as the names of those who perished on the Enterprise were read aloud and the ship’s bell was rung in their memory. The ceremony also featured a gun salute and military plane flyovers.
Many people wished the Enterprise could be turned into a museum, but the cost for such a conversion was astronomical.
Those gathered on the deck that day learned that pieces of the ship would be carefully dismantled for use in other Navy ships.
Huikko reported that thunderous applause rang out twice during the ceremony: once when a POW who had served on the ship was introduced, and again when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy’s next carrier, CVN-80, would carry on the Enterprise name. (This will be the ninth ship to be honored with the moniker.)
The Huikkos, about to celebrate 49 years of marriage, are the parents of three, grandparents of 10, and great-grandparents of three. They were able to view the Enterprise’s final decommissioning via the internet, in February. Both Dave and Sandy describe that as a “sad” day.
“That ship has a record that doesn’t match up with any of the others,” Huikko said.
While Huikko has always been proud of the Enterprise, it’s taken some time for him to develop the same respect for his own Navy service. “I didn’t think of myself the way some other vets do,” he said.
Huikko eventually watched a video entitled “I Am A Vet,” which make him think, and eventually allowed him to feel he could proudly claim his status as a veteran.
Area residents will have a chance to hear Huikko narrate a portion of his military history Thursday, April 20 at 6 p.m. at the Dassel History Center.
Huikko will introduce a documentary about the Enterprise fire, “Trial by Fire,” and answer questions about his experience. The full version of the documentary is also available on YouTube.